Fish Factor: Federal reports update seafood economy

Data shows figures are still above the five-year average

The U.S. seafood industry’s contribution to the nation’s economy sank a bit, while Alaska’s output increased slightly and dollar values held steady.

An eagerly anticipated annual report released in early May by NOAA Fisheries measures the economic impacts of U.S. commercial and recreational fisheries. It highlights values, jobs, and sales for 2015, along with a 10-year snapshot of comparisons.  A second report provides the status of U.S. fish stocks for 2016.

The Fisheries Economics Report shows that including imports, U.S. commercial fishing and the seafood industry generated $144 billion in sales in 2015, a six percent decline from the previous year, and supported 1.2 million jobs, a 15 percent decline.

“However, it’s important to consider these figures are still above the five-year average. In fact, 2015 represents the second highest level during that period,” Alan Risenhoover, Acting Deputy Assistant Administrator for Regulatory Programs said at a May 9 press teleconference.

For Alaska, commercial fishermen in 2015 landed more than 6 billion pounds of fish and shellfish, a six percent increase from 2014, while the value of the catch held steady at nearly $1.7 billion.

Fishing and processing in Alaska generated $4.4 billion in sales in 2015 and 53,400 jobs, of which 38,000 were fishermen.

Other highlights:

  • Pollock accounted for 54 percent of the total Alaska harvest volume.
  • Alaska crab values totaled $284 million, the highest level since 1999. Halibut received the highest dock price at $4.85 per pound in 2015; herring fetched the lowest price, averaging just one penny a pound.
  • Alaska Pollock ($509 million), salmon ($413 million), and crab ($284 million) dominated landings revenue.
  • Recreational fishing in Alaska put 5,407 people to work and saltwater anglers spent about $470 million for fishing trips and equipment.
  • A total of 309,000 anglers fished in Alaska in 2015, an eight percent increase, and spent approximately 975,000 days on the water, a two percent increase from the previous year.
  • Halibut (691,000 fish), coho salmon (578,000 fish), and various rockfish (475,000 fish) were the most frequently caught fish by Alaska anglers

Stock status

Fishery managers continued to notch successes in protecting and rebuilding the 474 fish stocks they oversee. According to the Status of U.S. Fisheries report for 2016, over 90 percent are not subject to overfishing, which is defined as catch rates being too high.

For Alaska, blue king crab at the Pribilof Islands is the only stock listed as overfished, meaning a population is too low, whether because of fishing or other causes, such as environmental changes.

When asked how the role of climate change is affecting NOAA’s healthy resource projections, Risenhoover said that warming waters and off kilter ocean chemistry can affect fish stocks in a number of ways.

“It may change the abundance, the how and where they reproduce and how successful they are at reproducing. It also changes where they live,” he explained. “We see some stocks perhaps moving north to colder waters or offshore for deeper, cooler waters. The management councils and the agency are trying to plan ahead on how to best manage those stocks as they move, and also increasing the science associated with our stock assessments.”

Tanner retakes

Surveys in June could set the stage for fishermen to once again drop pots for Tanner crab at Prince William Sound.

Earlier this year the state Board of Fisheries okayed a new harvest strategy that sets crab abundance thresholds for opening a fishery, based on estimates that will come from trawl surveys next month.

Up to 14 million pounds of bairdi Tanners were produced at Prince William Sound in the early 1970s. Then, as with other parts of the Central Gulf, the numbers steadily dwindled. No fishery has occurred in the Sound since 1995. More recently, while crab numbers continue to appear low, a good pulse of recruits has shown up in surveys and subsistence pots.

Should a Tanner fishery occur, the shell size of the legal male “keepers” has been reduced from 5.3 inches to 5 inches.

“We have a terminal molt condition situation in both Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound where male crabs are not reaching legal harvest size. They reach a maximum size and stop growing,” said Jan Rumble, groundfish and shellfish manager at Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game in Homer.

Rumble cautioned that the summer survey to determine the fate of the Tanner crab fishery could be tanked depending on the outcome of the state budget.

Similarly, reopening the Tanner crab fishery in the Bering Sea is the focus of a special May meeting where the Fish Board, managers and university biologists also will focus on the harvest rules.

The fishery produced the Bering Sea’s biggest crab catch in 2015 at 20 million pounds, but was abruptly closed last year when surveys showed low numbers of females.  Bairdi Tanner crab, the larger cousin of snow crab, is the only fishery that uses a female-only indicator for stock abundance. The closure caused a loss of $50 million to the crabbers, and pulled the plug on expanding purchases by Joe’s Crab Shack and Red Lobster.

The crab fleets believe lots of Tanners are out there based on their pot pulls, but that the crabs are just not showing up in the surveys.

“It’s a challenge when you have a fishery like this where the survey is done with a trawl and it’s a pot fishery. It’s difficult to know what the female population is because the gear is rigged to select for larger male crab on the bottom,” said Tyson Fick, director of the trade group Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers. “We want to think about alternatives to a single open/close threshold, like the on and off switch where it went from almost 20 million pounds to zero.”

It’s important to update and verify the best available science, Fick said, adding, “We really value and appreciate the opportunity to discuss this.”

The crab meeting was set for May 17-18 at the Anchorage Sheraton.

Seafood delivered

Local catches of halibut and spot shrimp are new additions to the Catch of the Season program, along with salmon jerky bites by the Hoonah Tribe’s Dear North Salmon Company.

It’s part of the Alaska Marine Conservation Council’s ongoing and expanding “Caught for Alaskans by Alaskans” campaign that delivers boxes of fresh/frozen seafood to customers in Anchorage, Homer, Fairbanks, and most recently, Seward.

“It lets buyers know that their dollars are supporting community-based fishermen, and they learn the who, what, where, when, and why of that specific seafood. And all profits go back into marine conservation efforts,” said David Fleming, AMCC seafood sales manager in Anchorage.

Find poundages, pricing, pickup locations and ordering info at seafood@akmarine.org. Deadline to order is May 19.

Top fish job

Chris Oliver, longtime executive director of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council has accepted the top job of assistant administrator of National Marine Fisheries Service. Oliver received unprecedented support from across the nation. His tentative start date is June 19, after the appointment is approved by the White House.